A battle is raging inside the European Commission (EC) over whether to include a binding 2030 renewables target in next week's White Paper.
The internal fight is likely to continue all the way up to the morning of publication on Wednesday, 22 January. From that day – acting as a college of 28 commissioners – everyone in the EC will stand behind whatever wording has been decided on.
The latest information leaking out of the commission is that a binding EU renewable-energy target is back in the text. However, the overall target – likely to be in the range of 24% to 30% – will not be combined with binding national targets.
That seems like a way for the EC to get the word “binding” into the text, without deviating from British prime minister David Cameron’s favoured approach to European energy and climate policy.
Cameron, with the backing of the Czech Republic, wants a binding 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding “regulation or targets that will force member states away from their least-cost decarbonisation pathway, or undermines a level technology playing field”, as Cameron wrote in a letter to commission president José Manuel Barroso on 4 December last year. The letter includes a call on Barroso not to regulate shale gas extraction at EU level.
By including the word “binding”, Barroso seems sensitive to the strong reactions against an approach that includes a "greenhouse gas target only" from the European Parliament and several governments, including Germany’s new super-minister and possible chancellor candidate, Sigmar Gabriel.
However, if an overall binding EU renewables target does not come with national obligations, it will be worse than an indicative target with national sub-targets. In such a situation, no member state could be held accountable for not reaching the targets, and the EU as a whole cannot be taken to court.
There are corridor talks about a bottom-up approach to national targets. It sounds a lot like the outcome of the failed 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, where countries, under the Copenhagen Accord, make explicit emission pledges, without any possibility of enforcement.
A big question is whether the strongest supporter of binding renewables targets, Climate Action Commission Connie Hedegaard, will sacrifice the renewables target to get a 40% greenhouse gas reduction target.
Last month she said that ambitious targets for efficiency and renewable energy “have served us well so far, and that will also serve us well in the future”, adding that this was her personal view, while smoothly avoiding use of the word “binding”.
It is an open secret that many of her staff view energy-efficiency and renewable-energy targets as a threat to the troubled EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Hedegaard has publicly backed binding renewables targets in the past, as has Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger. At an event in Brussels in October 2012, Oettinger said: “I think we need a new binding target for renewables. We need a clear outlook for renewables, and so some more obligations.”
It must not be forgotten that it is only a White Paper, and as such merely a proposal for action. However, it is evidently easier for ministers and heads of state to endorse something that is on paper than something that is not. That is why Wednesday is so crucial to the coming debate.
Cameron already seems to have got from Barroso what Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik did not want to give the UK: an EU hands-off approach to shale gas and fracking. Next week, we will know if Barroso, who leaves office in October this year, lets Cameron dictate the continent's renewables and climate policies for the next 15 years as well.
Christian Kjær is a former chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association and is a member of the Recharge board